A mischief of magpies defeated scientists' tracking devices

In doing so, the birds displayed a rare cooperative "rescue" behavior.

Dominique Potvin et al.

While we humans can't agree where we stand on tracking devices, one group of birds assertively came out against the technology. In The Conversation, Dominique Potvin, an Animal Ecology professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, said he and his team recently witnessed a mischief of magpies display a rare cooperative “rescue” behavior when they attempted to track the birds.

As part of their study, Potvin’s team developed a seemingly ingenious way of collecting data on a group of five magpies. They developed a lightweight but tough harness the birds could wear like backpacks and carry a small tracker with them as they went about their daily lives. They also created a feeding station that would wirelessly charge and download data from the trackers. It even had a magnet for freeing the birds of the harness. “We were excited by the design, as it opened up many possibilities for efficiency and enabled a lot of data to be collected,” Potvin said.

Unfortunately, the study fell apart in mere days. Within 10 minutes of Potvin’s team fitting the final tracker, they saw a female magpie use her bill to remove a harness off of one of the younger birds. Hours later, most of the other test subjects had been freed of their trackers too. By day three, even the most dominant male in the group had allowed one of his flock to assist him.

“We don’t know if it was the same individual helping each other or if they shared duties, but we had never read about any other bird cooperating in this way to remove tracking devices,” Potvin said. “The birds needed to problem solve, possibly testing at pulling and snipping at different sections of the harness with their bill. They also needed to willingly help other individuals, and accept help.”

According to Potvin, the only other example they could find of that kind of behavior among birds involved Seychelles warblers who helped their flockmates escape from sticky Pisonia seed clusters. Visit The Conversation to read the full story.